Ancestors, Culture and Identity: What I Learned in the Menno Ghetto

Soooo, here’s a little confession that might surprise some people: much of my increased interest in pre-Christian European heritage and ancestors has stemmed from living in such a hugely Amish and Mennonite area. Despite living near a factory and train line, I still hear the clippity clop of Amish horse and buggies at least a few times per week, even while sitting on our futon. Our farmers market has Amish vendors. Our credit union has a horse manure bin, and the local Walmart, ALDI and Menard’s all have buggy parking.

I’ve traded recipes, kefir grains and plant cuttings with an Amish family, and I have a(n Amish) 5-pointed star on my garden trellis facing the street, which means when the 9+ family bicycle outings of Amish ride by, they always wave. Indeed, we share an interest in gardening and protection magic, although I’m sure they’d use different words to describe their stars.

I love the Amish I’ve met here, and if I weren’t so concerned I’d get them in trouble  with the bishop for hanging out with faery-witchy me, I’d be much more social. They know loads about natural healing, gardening, organic farming, self-reliance, and off-grid technology. They don’t have driver’s licenses either, and they’ve got no qualms about honoring spiritual principles over stupid, invasive laws and customs. I respect that, though our views on religion (and women) differ. Widely.

On various occasions, I’ve talked with Amish people on their cell phones. Oh, yes, the Amish have cell phones. And solar powered aquaponics systems. And refrigerators and fancy fishing boats. I have it on good authority that some Amish children (and husbands) even eat … Cap’n Crunch!

One of my all time favorite memories of living in Goshen was when David and I drove up to some Amish friends of ours and saw two of the three young children working with their mother in the garden. When they turned around in their blue and grey Amish outfits, the little boy and girl had on fluorescent green and fluorescent pink heart-shaped sunglasses! David needed to calm me down before we exited the vehicle, because my cute-o-meter was on overdrive. I think I actually squealed.

Among many other things, David’s Dutch father is a Mennonite historian, specializing in both European and North American Anabaptist traditions: the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. Not only have I learned about these traditions by osmosis; I’ve also listened to countless explanations of the differences between “black bumper Mennonites,” “Amish,” “Old Order Mennonites,” “Dutch Mennonites,” “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and “Church of the Brethren.” (It’s all very complicated, so please don’t quiz me. Apparently, if you grow up Amish and/or Mennonite or first generation ex-Amish, which it seems most people here did, then you just know these things.)

I grew up in Bethlehem, PA, founded by Moravians, and of course, everyone in Quaker-founded Pennsylvania knows about the Amish in Lancaster. But before moving to Goshen, I had never heard of “The Menno Game.” After “hi” and sometimes even before “nice to meet you,” people share who’s married to and/or descended from whom and by way of which spelling of which 3-6 syllable German-sounding, often hyphenated last name, in order to establish lineage and relationship to one another. Though not by any stretch of the imagination a Mennonite, thanks to my time in Goshen, I can now play passable, vicarious rounds of The Menno Game. (I can also play “A Vonderful Goot Game” of Dutch Blitz.)

When we first moved to Goshen, I found the Menno Game extremely irritating. David’s not a practicing Mennonite, but he’s got the cred’s. Me? I’ve got some pirates, a distant, but unclear connection to Admiral Byrd, and a mishmash of Irish, English, Welsh, German and Eastern European, and somewhere way, way back, maybe a bit of the Anabaptist Roger Williams. Or not. Williams is a mighty common name.

My paternal grandmother’s family came over ten years after the Mayflower. Supposedly, I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution on both sides of the family, but other than these snippets, I know little to nothing of my lineage. Due to many secrets, conflicting stories, and exaggerations and omissions, I feel more certain about details of my own past lives than the history or identity of my ancestors.

I’ve lived in over 40 locations, often exclusive resort areas or high cost cities, but I never felt like an outsider until moving to “Menno Ghetto” Goshen. Not everyone here is Mennonite or Amish, but the more famous Lancaster is also more diverse. I’ve spoken to some other Outlanders about this, and they’ve agreed: there’s something about the patriarchal conformity, close-knit church communities, plain values, modest dress, severe hairstyles, and flat, grid like land of Goshen that makes you positively yearn for the Goddess.

Well, obviously, not everyone feels that way (hardly!), but for some of us, the contrast of all this community focused on a loving, generous, earthy, yet highly patriarchal culture and strict dogma triggers the inner longing for the Divine and Sacred Feminine so strongly that even if you overlooked Her before, you’ll pine for Her after living here for awhile. Or not. Apparently, most people here don’t, and that’s when I realized, I’m not just a little different. I’m not agnostic. And I’m not just a lone wolf. I value community, and I value compatible spiritual community.

Once I started my own little offshoot group of gardeners, poets and pagans celebrating the Wheel of the Year, I was able to admit to myself that the thing I found most irritating about The Menno Game was that I have almost no idea about my own lineage beyond my grandparents and a few rumors. My maiden name, “Derbenwick” isn’t even a real surname. It just happened to be the last of three consecutive misspellings of my immigrant, paternal grandfather’s last name on his BS, MS and PhD diplomas from Stanford. Coming from a family of illiterate Eastern European farmers, he didn’t bother to correct the spelling, and to this day would-be family historians argue about the original spelling, location and culture of the paternal side of the family.

My mom’s mom divorced twice, and each time she completely reinvented herself and her history. Who knows what’s real and what’s a convenient half-truth?! Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that my family knows how to reinvent itself, and that’s a trait I know I share. Brain injury gotcha down? Can’t read books anymore? No problem. Turn your intended PhD in English literature into a career of “reading” people. Don’t like your life’s trajectory? No problem. Tell yourself a different story, and claim it as your own. Stories are powerful, and ultimately, we do — or at least can — exert tremendous influence over our own scripts. For that lived reality, I thank both sides of my mysteriously dysfunctional family.

But living in the Land of Goshen, filled with people who can track their 100 first cousins, or who know their second cousins, twice removed, along with their detailed family history through four or more generations, I do sometimes feel culturally adrift. That quirky Menno Game and the Amish connection to tradition highlight my own gypsy, mutt, forgotten and confabulated ancestry, which oddly enough, gives me more in common with the majority of 21st century Westerners, even though I’m such a minority here.

Planting roots here (literally and figuratively) after all those relocations has forced me to recognize not knowing my own heritage as a kind of disability. I’ve finally realized why the powers that want to remain work so hard to uproot families via war, “free” trade deals, regulations and hostile corporate takeovers. Without conscious effort, uprooted people lose their heritage and with it, some of their strength. This orchestrated refugee crisis in Europe uproots not only those immigrating into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, but in such large volume it simultaneously uproots people in their own homeland. Tiny villages where families have lived for 400+ years suddenly have more Muslims than natives. Cities have no-go zones where native citizens can no longer go, where police fear to enter, allowing foreign law and customs to rule instead.

In our global economy and multi-cultural world, with such ease of transportation and communication, it’s so effortless to lose touch with the land, with our ancestors, and with our culture. It takes effort to reconnect, and having lived in an environment now where people do value and maintain their heritage, history and culture — even as they evolve with the times — I see that the effort to connect pays deep, incalculable rewards. We are all immigrants to varying degrees, but in this rapidly shifting, increasingly virtual world, we need to feel a real sense of belonging — to our communities and to our land, wherever and whatever those mean. We draw strength from those connections, and if we do not have them available from our histories, then we need to nurture them in our present and our future. We will be the next generations’ ancestors.

For my part, I anchor myself on this little plot of land here and by building local community. We are creating our own traditions and reinvigorating older, forgotten ways. I steep myself in stories from the Celts and Norse, tales of Middle Earth, Hollow Earth, Asgard, and Midgard, (Admiral Byrd, please visit me in my dreams … I’ve got some questions!). Over the decades, I’ve come to recognize the Hindu pantheon and stories as originating from the same source as the Celtic and Norse traditions. I study. I sing. I dream, and I create. I anchor myself through detailed past life recollections and through extensive local and global community. I share plant cuttings, trade clothing, and exchange cultures — sourdough, kefir, yogurt. There are so many ways to build connections through time and space.

This post is long, and it’s very late here. The Amish have long since gone to bed with the sun, as at one time, most people on the planet did. I hope my wandering and centering encourages each of you to seek, find and grow deeper roots. We will need them.

Blessed Be … and be the blessing

14 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on Reiki Dawn and commented:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful and heartfelt, searched-soul post, Laura. I understand some of what you feel, the born sense of nameless/rootlessness and your natural inclination for laying down new roots.

    I went to Western Europe for the first time a couple years ago—mostly Germany near the edge of the Black Forest, with visits into neighboring Switzerland and France. There I experienced something entirely unexpected, a cellular feeling of what you are talking about: ROOTS. It was as if something inside of me…just…relaxed. The resonance was a new sensation, hence one I’d never before realized I didn’t feel most of the time! And I realized” DNA is old old old. It has its own ancient, vibrational pattern. Put it on the land from whence it came and something palpable happens.

    I’m only half mainland European by blood (mixed German/Russian/Polish Jew); the other half is Irish Catholic. I just KNOW that if/when I go to Ireland one day, how magic it will be. Here, it’s stranger in a strange land.

    Except for the Native Americans, we are all immigrants in the USA. It’s incredible to realize the very real impact this rootlessness has on a body. And why gardens are so important. The land is our link, and yes, One Earth is the ultimate truth…but no more true than the power of place, entwined with our DNA signatures…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That was much better than the Wall Street Journal’s annual Thanksgiving remembrance – “The Desolate Wilderness.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Laura for once again expanding my awareness, I just love how you do that ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the additional insights and sharing, Diana. Yes, when I went to Russia in 1990, I felt a kinship there, as my dad’s side of the family is from Galatia — a region that shifted among many different countries, very near the current conflict in modern day Ukraine. I didn’t feel the connection so much in London, but I know when I go to Ireland and Wales and some of the English countryside, I will feel that pull. Whatever we can do to root ourselves will help with immigrant “crises” of all sorts, including healing crises. Our bodies are more miraculous and mysterious than we give them credit for.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Bo!


  7. You’re welcome, Suzanne. So glad you found this post expansive! ❤


  8. A lovely meditation on ancestry, neighborliness, reinvention and Crafts of all kinds. I worked four summers in PA and took our summer exchange students on many Amish tours — Japanese kids in particular were fascinated with these rich sub-culture(s).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you! Oh, I bet the Japanese would find particular fascination with such a different kind of simplicity and deep culture. There are so many beautiful and diverse cultures around the world. I don’t know why multiculturalism needs to insist we all blend into the same pot. Respect each other, yes, but just as landscapes are healthier with biodiversity, so our world is healthier with pockets of people thriving in very different ways, all potentially harmonizing with a greater and highly complex whole that runs backwards and forwards, inside and outside, through time and space.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Posted by Linda on November 23, 2015 at 11:58 pm

    I don’t know how to reply specifically to eat2evolve’s comment. However, I experienced a very similar reaction about 4 years ago in Germany – and had no idea in advance that I would feel that way. My ethnic background is (apparently) 100% German (at least in this lifetime – lol). Going on the train up the Rhine from Wiesbaden to Koblenz I experienced this overwhelming feeling of having come home. Totally was not expecting that.

    Dear, dear Laura – thank you so much for the many things that you share. Your website is truly a sanctuary!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Yes, Laura, Galatia! Spelled and pronounced different ways…we are Galitzianer—kin. ❤ (How about a field trip to the Emerald Isle?!) And yes, Linda, isn't it amazing—that unexpected, overwhelming feeling of coming home? Wow. Incredible this life, on Earth in human form. Always. xx Diana

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience, too, Linda! You’re most welcome for the sharing. I try to do what I can to remind people of tools and connections they already have. Peace in, peace out. 🙂


  13. Oh, fun, Diana! Very cool. My mom already has dibs on me for a trip to Bealtaine Cottage, as does David, but hey, I’m about 8.5 years overdue for some kind of event in the UK, so who knows? Maybe lots of us will head over to Ireland, England and Wales. My mom’s cousin also lives in a castle in Scotland, so we can’t forget that! In all seriousness, I remember Ireland so vividly as though I’ve been there in this lifetime, even though I haven’t. David did do a little ritual for me and leave a part of me in Dublin when he flew there for work in 2012. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for that fascinating and well-written insight into the history and culture of your area. As they say, “the only way to know where you are going is to know where you have been.” BTW I’m not sure if you have had a chance to read my latest piece, but while I’ve got, you if you would kindly do the honour.

    Liked by 1 person

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